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The Zarqawi scandal

March 29th, 2004

As Richard Clarke’s unsurprising revelations continue to receive blanket coverage[1] around the blogosphere and elsewhere, I’ve been increasingly puzzled by the failure of the Zarqawi scandal to make a bigger stir. As far as I can determine, the following facts are undisputed

* Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the group Ansar al-Islam is one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorists currently active. He is the prime suspect for both the Karbala and Madrid atrocities and the alleged author of a letter setting out al Qaeda’s strategy for jihad in Iraq. Although he has become increasingly prominent in the past year, he has been well-known as a terrorist for many years
* For some years, until March 2003, Ansar al-Islam was based primarily at Kirma in Northern Iraq, in part of the region of Iraq generally controlled by the Kurds and included in the no-fly zone enforced by the US and UK. In other words, the group was an easy target for either a US air attack, a land attack by some special forces and/or Kurdish militia or a combination of the two
* Nothing was done until the invasion of Iraq proper, by which time the group had fled

These facts alone would indicate a failure comparable in every way to the missed opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before S11. But the reality appears to be far worse.

According to the MSNBC report that broke the story, three plans were drawn up for attacks on Zarqawi and all were killed by the National Security Council

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

There are various hypotheses about the precise grounds, all highly discreditable, but the most plausible is that a watertight plan would have required co-operation between US air forces, and Kurdish ground forces. This would have been most unpalatable to the Turkish government, which was being courted, up to the last minute, as a partner for the Iraq war. So nothing was done, and by the time the camp was attacked at the beginning of the war, Zarqawi and most of his followers were gone.

An alternative, equally discreditable, explanation is that the Administration wanted to keep Zarqawi’s group in existence as a count in the indictment of Saddam, relying on the claim that Zarqawi had received treatment in a Baghdad hospital as ‘proof’ of Saddam’s links to terrorism, a claim that was unlikely to stand up to the kind of close examination that would follow an attack on the group.

Although it’s a peripheral point, there were also credible reports that Ansar al-Islam was engaged in the manufacture of ricin, a poison used in assassination. Ricin is scarcely a weapon of mass destruction but, if the Administration had applied the same criteria to Zarqawi as to Saddam, it would certainly have provided sufficient justification for a pre-emptive strike. It is, however, a peripheral point. The justification for attempting to kill Zarqawi and eliminate his group is and was the fact that he is a terrorist, not a legalistic quibble about his choice of killing technology. Similar attacks have been made in a number of countries under both Bush and Clinton, most notably including Clinton’s attempt on Osama.

When the story first broke about a month ago[2], it was widely covered by critics of the war, at least some of whom pointed out the seriousness of the implications. Brad de Long, for example, argued that it constituted grounds for impeachment of Bush and other members of the Administration. (There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).

On the other hand, the warbloggers have been almost uniformly silent. The few who have mentioned the issue have mostly made the ludicrous claim that Zarqawi’s activities, undertaken in an effectively US-controlled part of Iraq, constituted proof that ‘Iraq really did have WMD’s’. I have found the single honorable exception of Andrew Sullivan, and I expect there are some others, but not many.

And there it rests. As far as I can tell, there’s been no follow-up story and no action on the political front. A failure that would appear to be, at best, a disastrous blunder and, at worst, a deliberate betrayal of the struggle against terrorism has simply been ignored while Washington plays the familiar game of “He Said, She Said”.

fn1. The best blanket is that provided by Tim Dunlop. Tim’s doing a great job with the story but, for once, my blogtwin and I are not picking up the same vibrations from the BlogGeist as to what constitutes an interesting topic.

fn2. Even before the war, Dan Drezner wondered why the group had not been attacked.

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  1. Stalin
    March 29th, 2004 at 10:30 | #1

    Why am I not surprised by this story?

  2. March 29th, 2004 at 11:14 | #2

    As I understand it, the group did not exist when Saddam controlled that area – and would have been unlikely to exist if Saddam had controlled the area, given Saddam’s ruthless ability to prevent “terrorist” groups in the lands under his control.

    oh – the irony. Only through the protection of the US have several terrorist groups been able to survive (I say several as I’m also thinking of the wonderful peaceful KLA chaps in Kosovo – who were not only protected, but also trained).

  3. gordon
    March 29th, 2004 at 11:44 | #3

    Yet another indication that the real rationale for the invasion of Iraq had much more to do with oil than with terrorism.

  4. March 29th, 2004 at 12:26 | #4

    The administration has been playing politics with policy from the word go. Its only “policy” has been to exploit every crisis as a political opportunity.
    It has convinced itself, as an article of faith, that getting rid of Hussein would be:
    intrinsically, a morally good thing in itself – no doubt true from the pov of the Iraqi peoples freedom and prosperity
    instrumentally, be strategically useful – apparently false since it has prokoved regional Islamacism and national anarchism
    It turns out that rogue state regimes actually hinder, rather than help, terrorism. Rather as Old Rogue Bulls tend to keep the Young Bulls in check. Melbourne is currently having a gang war where the Old Bulls are being knocked off (“regime change”) which is causing anarchy and terror rather than a smooth progression to law and order.
    This stategic failure in Iraq has provoked that which it was designed to prevent: terrorism.
    The Ansar Islam fiasco only proves that the Bush’s ideological fetish with regime change has caused it to totally lose the plot on the War on Islamacist Terrorism.
    They deserve to lose the election for this failure, if nothing else.

  5. Homer Paxton
    March 29th, 2004 at 14:01 | #5

    Jack is on the money.
    Both Bush and Howard let Al Quaeda off the hook when we went into Afghanistan.
    We need to completely eliminate Al Quaeda because until this is done Iraq, Spain or Australia will never have peace or security.
    What is the point of having troops in Iraq when Al Quaeda is making hay. You have to get rid of them first.

    This brings on the delicious irony that it is Bush, Howard and their apologists that have assisted Al Quaeda indeed made the stronger because of their ill thought out war against Iraq.

    Think about it who would you rather have in gaol Saddam or Usama? Who should have $US87 been spent on to eliminate the Baathist party or Al Quaeda ?

  6. Andy
    March 29th, 2004 at 17:29 | #6

    Gentlemen

    I wonder if you’re using your powers of 20/20 hindsight and reclining in your armchairs too much.

    Now I’m no expert on Ansar al-Islam so I decided to do little research and the very first hit on Google I found gave me this little piece by human rights watch.

    http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/ansarbk020503.htm

    It seems that a fair proportion of Ansar al Islam are Kurds in the first place and have been fighting since 1991. It also seems like they carved themselves out a little piece of Kurdistan with the help of local villagers, Iranian intelligence agents and probably Saudi interests. Saddam Hussein and the Iranians probably both had common interest in keeping the PUK occupied as much as possible and this probably had the most to do with their continued existence.

    In regards to any land action by coalition forces, I suspect the first thing they would have liked to have done was investigate some suspected WMD sites, rather than some Kurds (with a few Arab mates) who were fighting other Kurds. Clearly there were political and even legal issues that constrained the coalition from any land action in Iraq from the time of George Sr, through Clinton to George Jr. (ie. Both sides of politics)

    Regarding bombing: If these guys lived with the locals in regular villages, I don’t see what you could do from the air (1) until they became (coalition) enemy combatants rather than suspected terrorists and, (2) they organised themselves into some sort of military formation identifiable from the air. Basically I don’t see what could have been done until formal hostilities began between Ansar al Islam and the coalition, and ground forces were able to sort them out from non-combatants.

    I remember thinking during the war that these guys seemed to have got away without a clobbering but then I thought, since this was principally a special forces operation I wasn’t likely to hear of successes, rather, I would only hear of bombs going astray into villages etc. Some clearly did get away but I suspect many others are enjoying their virgins in Paradise or catching the sun in Cuba to this day.

    That’s my thoughts for what it’s worth and I guess you wouldn’t have posted your original thoughts on the matter if you only wanted people to agree with you and join in lambasting the Bush administration.

    Andy

  7. John Quiggin
    March 29th, 2004 at 17:45 | #7

    Andy, I certainly want the comments thread to be a forum for debate rather than a venue for a cheer squad, so I welcome your contribution.

    Your arguments on the military difficulties seem plausible enough on the surface, but they need to be directed at those who, according to the MSNBC report, believed their attack plan to be ‘watertight’.

    I should say that this is only one report, but no-one has denied it and the people quoted (Cressy and Hanlon) are very credible.

  8. Andy
    March 29th, 2004 at 18:38 | #8

    John

    I’m just a little suspicious of unnamed military sources in articles such as these. Nothing is airtight about a cruise missile that takes four hours to get to its target. If indeed it is a target that you’re aiming at. Presumably the intelligence provided to the coalition regarding these guys came from sources such as the PUK. Ordinarily you could probably assume that they would be working in the coalition’s interests, but in this case, they probably were not as discriminating as the coalition would have liked them to be in their targeting policy. Secondly, at this time prior to the conflict, the Kurds were very anxious to get the coalition involved in open hostilities against Iraq (the greater enemy). Everyone knew this. It would be enough to make me consider any plan to attack a facility that you can only see by satellite very much less than “airtight”. Whoever is saying this is being very disingenuous. Sounds political to me.

    We also know with the benefit of hindsight that there was no ricin found at the site. The BBC were stomping all over the place the day after it was liberated.

    So perhaps in hindsight we could say that this was one Bush did get right?

    Andy

  9. Andy
    March 29th, 2004 at 19:28 | #9

    John, on reading the article yet again I can see where perhaps some confusion could set in. When the author of the article states:

    “In January 2003, the threat turned real. Police in London arrested six terror suspects and discovered a ricin lab connected to the camp in Iraq.”

    What this guy really means is that six guys were arrested in connection to ricin and CS gas found in a North London flat. Whatever their connection to the camp in Iraq, it wasn’t physical. Maybe there were political connections, but that wasn’t enough for us to lock up journalists at the ABC during the Cold War, and it probably wasn’t enough for a cruise missile attack either.

    As an interesting aside, the ground attack on the camp much later doesn’t seem to have gone off too bad. Certainly some guys must have got away. But nobody really knows how long they were gone for. Here is a quote I found at the BBC by searching under ricin:

    “The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, said it could take a week to search the camp, which contained many tunnels.
    He was unaware that any weapons of mass destruction had been found so far.
    Bodies
    An undisclosed number of camp defenders were killed during the operation, while others were captured.
    General Myers said the bodies found there were neither Iraqi nor Iranian.
    “We don’t know for sure, but they’re most likely al-Qaeda,” he added. ”

    General Myers is not an unnamed military source and he is prepared to go on the record. There was no follow-up article announcing the discovery of weapons of mass destruction. An attack by cruise missiles may just have ended up taking out the Ansar Al Islam mothers club. A tough call certainly. But I don’t think the decision can be universally condemned.

    It’s obvious that the article is only topical now because of the politics associated with the decision not to attack with cruise missiles at the time. The fact that this story has been published NOW after an arbitrary number of deaths at the hands of these terrorists, probably says a lot about the politics of the journalists, editors and others who had a hand in publishing it, especially considering the ambiguous language that was used to connect ricin to the camp. I certainly don’t think it stands on its own merits.

    Andy

  10. Andy
    March 29th, 2004 at 20:57 | #10

    I’m sorry John (and I’m sorry readers) but I have a few more quibbles with your analysis of this decision not to attack Ansar al Islam in Northern Iraq.

    The notable thing about Clinton’s cruise missile attack on Osama in Afghanistan was that it killed nobody of interest to the administration and didn’t stop further attacks from occurring. This is no doubt that this is one of the things that concentrated the minds of the administration when they considered a similar attack in Northern Iraq.

    The problem with attacking these guys and not completely succeeding is that they were Sunni Moslems. The administration had plans that needed the support of several countries that were predominantly Sunni Moslems. An attack on Ansar al Islam that did not completely succeed would have put these plans in jeopardy politically. I’m sure there would have been an enough ghastly pictures from any attack to suit any storyline you could care to invent. That’s the problem with bombing. Nobody likes it when you do it. It’s still an imprecise science especially when you don’t know who’s in the building. (Although I do find it ironic that those normally on the left side of politics are arguing for its use now).

    The Bush administration wanted to remove Saddam Hussein and Ansar al Islam. I don’t see any disconnect between wanting to get two birds with one stone. Certainly there was a danger that Ansar al Islam could develop some ghastly plans while you waited to build up enough strength to get Saddam, but if you attacked first and failed then many other options may have proved politically impossible. No doubt this is why they argued late into the night. It’s not an easy decision and it was full of awful risks.

    Another risk which was all too obvious was that Zarqawi might not be there at all when you attacked. You might kill some footsoldiers but as we have seen, Zarqawi is dangerous enough operationally all on his own. A quick search (again) on the BBC web site will show Zarqawi turning up in a lot of places besides Northern Iraq although I don’t dispute he had supporters there and perhaps something of a base.

    Incidentally I have a funny way of looking at this. If you agree Ansar al Islam was sufficient enough threat to attack on the ground or in the air and had to be eliminated completely, then you are in fact advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein since his regime provided some measure of sanctuary to these guys. Now John would have you think that the Americans kept Ansar al Islam around just to provide this justification for invasion. Me, I just think John would rather concoct a conspiracy theory rather than look at the dangers of attacking these guys too early in a deliberate campaign, especially since young Bill had shown how ineffective these attacks can be.

    Cheers, Andy

  11. tipper
    March 30th, 2004 at 03:15 | #11

    This looks like a beat-up to me.
    A lot of “facts” don’t add up.
    To start with, Zarqawi is the leader of Al-Tawhid, not Ansar Al-Islam, as John states.
    There is no doubt there are links between the two groups and Ansar Al-Sunna, as well.
    I’ve got no information that Zarqawi was ever holed up in Northern Iraq, with Ansar Al-Islam, so the whole basis of the article evaporates in smoke.
    As a matter of interest the leader of Ansar Al-Islam, Mullah Krekar, is currently enjoying the good life, courtesy of Norway and that marvellous UN refugee policy, that is keeping a lot of homicidal Islamists safe in Europe, away from the dangerous intrigues of the Middle East.
    And of course when outrages, which they planned do happen, the’ve got a great alibi, they were a long way away in Europe.
    BTW, our one-legged Jordanian Bedouin friend is currently thought to be hiding in Iran.
    Great excuse for bombing them, what!

  12. John Quiggin
    March 30th, 2004 at 07:03 | #12

    “To start with, Zarqawi is the leader of Al-Tawhid, not Ansar Al-Islam, as John states.”

    This is a quibble. While our knowledge of these groups is conjectural to some extent, it appears that a number have linked together, beginning with the establishment of the Kirma camp and developing further. These groups are now generally referred to, collectively, by the name of Ansar-al Islam and Zarqawi is generally referred to as the leader. Google gives thousands of references to this effect.

    As regards Mullah Krekar, Tipper is surely aware that these groups usually have a “spiritual leader” who is kept sufficiently far from the terrorist organisation to make prosecution difficult. Zarqawi is Hambali to Krekar’s Bashir.

    “I’ve got no information that Zarqawi was ever holed up in Northern Iraq, with Ansar Al-Islam, so the whole basis of the article evaporates in smoke.”

    Umm, the article gives you the information. Or are you saying you get your news from a network of informants on the ground?

    Zarqawi’s presence at Kirma has been reported in hundreds of places. Since you don’t believe MSNBC, how about someone more ideologically reliable like National Review Online from Feb 6 2003, a little after the time the last attack plan was apparently killed. Money quote

    Zarqawi is now believed to have returned to the Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq run by his Jund al-Shams lieutenants. Terrorists trained at the camp have plotted chemical attacks with various toxins in Britain, France, Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, and Chechnya.

  13. John Quiggin
    March 30th, 2004 at 08:24 | #13

    Andy, I agree that the issues aren’t fully resolved by the MSNBC series. But there’s no doubt that Bush had a good chance to get Zarqawi and his group and didn’t take it.

    For the rest, if this story got the attention that’s been given to Clarke, maybe we’d find out the real facts.

  14. Andy
    March 30th, 2004 at 11:43 | #14

    John

    I thought I did establish that there was plenty of doubt about the possible outcomes of any such attack on Zarqawi in northern Iraq? Tunnels throughout the camp? Zarqawi’s frequent movements? The ineffectiveness of Bill Clinton’s attack on Osama?

    If you agree the issues are not resolved by this article, then why did you go on to construct elaborate conspiracy theories about why Bush didn’t attack?

    As for why this has not been given the scrutiny that Clark’s revelations have been afforded, perhaps because this was always a risky operation politically, militarily and legally and that was reason enough for it not to have gone ahead. Life doesn’t always have to be conspiracy.

    Andy

  15. March 30th, 2004 at 14:10 | #15

    Andy unconsciously mocks the Bush admins MO:

    this was always a risky operation politically, militarily and legally and that was reason enough for it not to have gone ahead. Life doesn’t always have to be conspiracy.

    And Operation Iraqi Freedom was not a “risky operation, politically, militarily and legally”?
    The Bush admin is willing to skate on pretty thin ice if it sees a chance to exert its political will and prevail over institutional adversaries throughout the world (eg UN, ICC or OPEC).
    It likes to style this as “foreign policy” but it is just domestic politics by other means.
    All they really care about is passing their regressive tax-cuts – this, not the War on Terror, is what Bush is prepared to sacrifice his life for.

    Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes.

    And the dead bodies of 500+ average Americans.
    Whipping up a fundamentalist Christian freak-out over the crisis in Mesopotamia is just a means to that end.

  16. Homer Paxton
    March 31st, 2004 at 15:55 | #16

    Jack,
    I would have hoped that fundamentalist freakouts would have been influenced by the just war doctrine. If this was the case the war was never justified.

  17. kyan gadac
    March 31st, 2004 at 16:48 | #17

    The fog of war. Zarqawi’s organization reportedly had no ties to al-Q prior to the invasion of Iraq. See Juan Cole’s dossiers on his activities.(saves Googling the web:-). So it’s quite likely that BushCo were treating him as “an enemy of our enemy” prior to the invasion. (certainly he was an enemy of Saddam’s in spite of the mystery of the false of leg.)

    Many of these sources fall apart when you look at them. The German Ansar al Islam suspect was reportedly an unreliable witness (who drank, was gay and smoke dope without evening blushing! – see Juan Cole’s dossiers).

    I think that Al Zarqawi is a red herring to distract attention from the main game against alQ in Afghanistan. This is not going to well at the moment. The Pakistan army has just been routed in the hills of Waziristan and the Afghani puppet government is getting picked off one by one by the resurgent Taliban.

    Nobody’s mentioned the unmentionable yet but what
    are the odds on an attack at Gallipoli in 25 days time. All alert but not alarmed are we? Keep the fridge magnet handy folks!

  18. tipper
    March 31st, 2004 at 16:51 | #18

    Dan Darling at Regnum Crucis has fisked John’s post over

    PS
    How do you embed a link

  19. John Quiggin
    March 31st, 2004 at 17:16 | #19

    Tipper, you need to use a href=”URL” (inside angle brackets), then the link then a closing /a tag.

    Dan’s piece is here.

    I read it a couple of days ago, and was underwhelmed. Most of it seemed to consist of quibbles about the precise relationship between different terrorist groups, points on which no-one has exact information anyway (for example, it’s not even clear to what extent the name “al Qaeda” is still in use, or even how widespread it was in the past).

    On the basic point that Zarqawi’s group was in easy reach, and was left alone, Dan’s only point was “old news”. The “new news” is of course, that military sources are now saying the decision to do nothing was purely political, based on the overwhelming priority given to war with Saddam.

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